Arsenal footballer Mesut Ozil’s statement on the plight of the Uighur’s in the Xinjiang province created a firestorm in China. And the firestorm in China has created further conflagration in the west.
While Arsenal itself cowered under pressure of financial loss, China are being slammed for mixing sports with politics, especially by the media.
The Ozil controversy comes on the heels of s similar uproar caused by a tweet from Houston Rocket’s general manager Daryl Morey supporting Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters.
Ozil, who is of Turkish descent, had spoken out against the treatment of the Uighur’s in an Instagram post.
“East Turkistan, the bleeding wound of the Ummah, resisting against the persecutors trying to separate them from their religion. They burn their Qurans. They shut down their mosques. They ban their schools. They kill their holy men. The men are forced into camps and their families are forced to live with Chinese men. The women are forced to marry Chinese men. But Muslims are silent. They won’t make a noise. They have abandoned them. Don’t they know that giving consent for persecution is persecution itself?”
His statement came in the wake of recent reports detailing the formation and implementation of policies in the surveillance, rounding up, and detaining up to a million Chinese Uighurs in Xinjiang, which Chinese officials have denied.
Just as they reacted against the Houston Rockets and the NBA, live broadcast of Arsenal’s match was yanked off Chinese television with further threat of losing Chinese sponsorship to English football looming.
The western media has made it all about the problems with politics interfering with sports. It would be difficult for western sports franchises to continue business with China if the country continues to mix sports with politics, seemed to be main concern.
China after all, with a population of more than a billion, not only boast of huge potential but is also the fastest growing fan base for westerns sports including the NBA and the EPL,
Just as how Arsenal has thrown Ozil under the bus in this issue, the sporting fraternity does not see the benefit of going against human rights issues when it affects them financially.
When FIFA were criticized for ignoring human rights issues and awarding China the rights to host the 2021 Club World Cup, FIFA president Gianni Infantinno had this to say:
“There are problems in this world, everywhere… it is not the mission of FIFA to solve the problems of the world. The mission of FIFA is to organize football and to develop football all over the world.”
For the same reason, it is now apparent, as to why FIFA prefers to look the other way, when it comes to the numerous deaths of construction workers building the stadiums for the 2022 Qatar World Cup.
It is not very much different from the stance taken by the National Football League (NFL) and club owners took when US president Donald Trump went on a personal tirade against Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick had protested the against police brutality against the blacks by kneeling during the national anthem before NFL matches. He has not played for any clubs since.
Political issues gets so much more attention when it is made by sportsmen as compared to actors, activists or even other politicians themselves.
Actor Richard Gere is an outspoken critic of China’s annexation of Tibet and is said to have been dropped by many of the top Hollywood big wigs from their projects. The reasons is once again financial consideration with China being a big movie market.
And Gere, while still being passionate about a free Tibet, hardly gets much traction in his endeavor.
One of the core goals of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.
But, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) itself has never been too concerned about the thousands who are displaced from their homes to build new Olympic venues or the predicament of the homeless, who are evicted from their temporary abodes to protect the clean image of the Olympics.
This is not the first time that human dignity has taken the back seat when it comes to the threat of losing money.
Arsenal’s quick reaction faced with financial losses was to put up a statement distancing themselves from Ozil’s statement, on Chinese social media platform Weibo.
“Regarding the comments made by Mesut Özil on social media, Arsenal must make a clear statement,” it read. “The content published is Özil’s personal opinion. As a football club, Arsenal has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics,” the statement read.
Ironically, the United Kingdom was one of the 23 countries to condemn China’s detention of Uighur muslims, a sentiment not shared by one of their own top football clubs.
Malaysia on its part does not want to take a confrontational stance toward China over the issue as stated Minister Mahathir Mohamad recently.
What would be the reaction of the Malaysian government and sports associations if any of the top Malaysian sportsmen were to tweet on the plight of the Uighurs or Tibetans?
Like Ozil, there has been many instances of sportsmen speaking their mind and making political statements and standing by it immaterial of the consequences.
Take case of boxing legend Muhammad Ali when he refused the draft for the Vietnam War. He was unable to fight from March 1967 to 1970 after being denied the mandatory boxing licence.
The American duo of Thommie Smith and John Carlos and Australian Peter Norman were on the wrong end of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) justice their protest during the 1968 Olympics.
The American duo, raised their fists in the air on the medal podium to protest the Vietnam War, and were swiftly sent back home. Norman was penalized for wearing the human rights badge in protesting the White Australia Policy.
Norman was never picked again to run for Australia at the Olympics, despite meeting qualifying times.
Smith, who was the person to legally run the 200m below 20 seconds and Carlos, who went on to tie the then 100m world record, are still actively involved in sports. Norman passed away in 2006 and both Smith and Carlos were pallbearers.
Whether it is Kaepernick protesting police brutality or Megan Rapinoe fighting for LGBT rights or the late Brazilian captain protesting dictatorship or Ali protesting the war, athletes are on their own when it comes to making political statements.
In an era where sports franchises and international sports bodies including the IOC, FIFA and the ICC earn billions from sports, money matters.
Sports and politics do not mix, because “nothing should come between sports and money”.